Preservation and Nostalgia

Up-close image of yellow Solari frame with black and white split-flap letters.

I remember hearing, long ago, about an audio recording project. My dad told me about it after reading an article in the paper. Someone was recording clips of audio of sounds ‘on the verge of extinction.’ It was a project wrapped up in nostalgia bent on capturing and cataloguing different noises. A museological archive project, one that lamented the disappearance of certain sounds, sounds the project’s organizer found beautiful and wanted to share with the ambiguous future. Among others, one of those sounds was the clacking of the split-flap displays changing over on the arrivals and departures boards of terminals.

Now that I’ve become familiar with sound studies, this initiative sounds a bit like The World Soundscape Project. Founded by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in the end of the 1960s at Simon Fraser University in BC, this international project sought to preserve sonic landmarks and dying sounds. Frustrated at ever-increasing levels of noise pollution in urban soundscapes and awareness that certain sounds were becoming obsolete due to changes in technology, Schafer and some of the WSP team (which would eventually grow to include the excellent soundwalk artist and acoustic ecologist Hildegard Westerkamp and granular synthesis expert Barry Truax) began capturing sounds. These would provide Schafer with examples of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ urban acoustic design, but also served to build an archive of sounds. The group would typically capture long uninterrupted takes of ambient noise, bells, ships, and mechanical and industrial sounds, including even the sounds of the recordist themselves – footsteps, pants shuffling, breathing.

Left side, a man stands recording near an elephant, right hand side, four white men stand on the steps of Simon Fraser Univeristy.
Image courtesy of

There have been several critiques of the WSP, from Andra McCartney’s troubling of Schafer’s notion of ‘good’ hifi sounds of quiet and nature and ‘bad’ harsh lofi sounds of the city, to Mitchell Akiyama’s analysis of the WSP’s ten-hour piece Soundscapes of Canada and the critical exclusion of non-European voices in the creation of that sonic narrative. However, there’s a nostalgia implicit in the WSP project that is inescapable. And possibly pieces of that same nostalgia is also woven through this Solari project, a longing for the analog past.

This week, we wanted to see how easy it would be to switch the (very heavy) steel supports of the units. They’re currently set up to extend out from the top of the units, and hung from the ceilings when they were installed in Mirabel. We’re planning on rearranging them so they rest on the floor. Hence, we needed to flip the legs around. We were able to get the yellow front façade off with a little bit of work. The six screws holding each fiberglass side panel onto the steel framework require an unusually large squarehead bit to remove, and though we tried a number of bits, we weren’t able to find one big enough. We settled on using a flathead on an angle, and were able to at least get the top façade off. Matt and I then undid the eight heavy bolts attaching the legs to the unit using a ratchet and adjustable wrench. Those came off with little trouble.

Picture showing the metal framework (with four spots for lightbulbs) of the display and the wire patch panel, with the large yellow rectangle of the fibreglass back panel façade at the bottom.

When we took the guts of the unit out to see what we were working with and set it too the one side, we both exclaimed at how lovely it was. “Yeah, what is it about them, that we find so beautiful?” Matt asked, “Is it the bright yellow and black and the crisp whiteness of the text? Or the simplicity, and how carefully done the old design is?” When I first saw a Solari Board, it was in a train station in Germany. I did feel something, some sort of delight. Standing in the station, hearing the cascade of white letters spilling down the blackness of the board. There’s something exciting about it. Maybe it’s the sound of it, the crisp clacking of the splitflaps as they cycle through options. Maybe it’s the action, the rush of analog movement stirring that doesn’t feel the same as a digital sign. But there’s maybe also something to be said about the act of preserving, too. In choosing to take care of something – to record it, to restore it, to activate it – you make it specific. It is not only a matter of having that thing, but also giving it value. It becomes a shared experience, the tug on a sleeve: Do you see this? Did you hear that? Isn’t it incredible?

We’re still on the hunt for the appropriate screwdriver. But it looks like the legs should turn around just fine, and the unit is fitting neatly even when flipped (which means that the bolt distance is the same from the top and the bottom when turned around.